Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, who one day will convene in Canton, first have a score to settle in Tampa: Super Bowl LV.
The two faces of the NFL, bookends of an era, cleared their final hurdles Sunday by leading their respective teams — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs — back to the main event.
After Brady threw three touchdown passes in a 31-26 upset at Green Bay, Mahomes threw three of his own in a 38-24 victory over Buffalo.
Brady will be going for his seventh ring, more than any NFL franchise. Win or lose, the Buccaneers are guaranteed a spot in the history books, as they will be the first team to play in a Super Bowl held in their home stadium.
“We’re coming home,” said the Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians, in his first Super Bowl as a head coach. “We’re coming home to win.”
Two teams have come close to home Super Bowls. The 1979 Rams played Pittsburgh in the Rose Bowl — as opposed to the L.A. Coliseum — and the 1984 San Francisco 49ers beat Miami in a Bay Area Super Bowl, but it was held at Stanford Stadium and not Candlestick Park.
The Buccaneers reached the NFL’s final game as a wild-card team, meaning they had to win three games on the road to get here — at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. They will finally get a home game, and the NFL is planning for about 22,000 spectators at the Super Bowl, among them 7,500 vaccinated health care workers who will attend the game as guests of the league.
The Chiefs are early 3 1/2-point favorites, according to sportsbook PointsBet USA.
In the AFC championship game, Mahomes threw for 325 yards and showed no lingering effects from the concussion that knocked him out of a divisional-round win over Cleveland, nor did he seem overly bothered by the turf-toe injury that left him slightly hobbled against the Browns.
“It was just trusting each other,” Mahomes said of the victory. “The best thing about this team is we believe in each other. But the job’s not finished. We’re going to Tampa. We’re trying to run it back.”
Yes, football is a team sport, but in terms of quarterback matchups, Brady and Mahomes are 2-2. Mahomes has the statistical edge in that, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions compared with Brady’s six touchdowns and five interceptions.
Like a sizzling spiral, there’s a circular nature to this Tampa Bay-Kansas City matchup. Mahomes, 25, and the Chiefs are looking to become the first club to repeat as Super Bowl champions since Brady guided the New England Patriots to back-to-back titles in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The second of those victories came against the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid, currently coach of Kansas City.
This will be the record-extending 10th Super Bowl for Brady, 43, having gotten there nine times with the Patriots. He left for Tampa Bay last spring, the most celebrated NFL transaction of 2020.
“Tom is the GOAT,” said Buccaneers wide receiver Scotty Miller, invoking the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. “Last year, we ended 7-9. This year, we’re going to the Super Bowl. He’s the biggest reason.”
Sunday’s performance was far from perfect by Brady, however, who had three interceptions in the second half and leaned heavily on Tampa Bay’s defense to halt top-seeded Green Bay’s seven-game winning streak.
“We played sporadically a bit,” Brady said, “but the defense came up huge.”
Arians, meanwhile, is building his own case to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The longtime assistant coach and offensive coordinator “retired” in 2011 after the Pittsburgh Steelers showed him the door, then came back as the offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts and No. 1 pick Andrew Luck.
When Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer, Arians stepped in as his interim replacement and became the first fill-in to be named NFL coach of the year.
Two years later, Arians won that award in 2014 with the Arizona Cardinals.
He retired again in 2018 and worked a season as a color analyst for CBS, which is broadcasting this season’s Super Bowl.
But he resurfaced with the Buccaneers in 2019 and now has led that franchise back to its second Super Bowl appearance, the first coming at the end of the 2002 season, when the Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders 48-21.